When Joe Lovell and I recently spent a few days investigating and testing mobile websites, one of the things we weren’t expecting to discover was just how few websites cater specifically for tablets. Neither of us are what you might call ‘heavy’ tablet users. Our critique of the sites we saw happened without expectation of what a tablet browsing experience should, or shouldn’t be. Doubtless many tablet users are used to navigating full desktop sites on a small screen, but we were not. This probably made us a little more critical than most, but I think justifiably so in light of the collective sigh of relief breathed when we encountered a site actually designed to work on a tablet!
This apparent lack of investment in tablet-specific design is all the more surprising given the current surge in tablet sales.
“Tablet computer shipments soared in the first quarter of 2013, growing by 142.4% compared with the same period in 2012, according to analysts IDC. Figures suggested more tablets were shipped from January to March 2013 than in the entire first half of 2012.”
So, why should websites cater for the tablet browsing experience?
1 It really is a different medium!
Many still seem to believe that a tablet is just a laptop without a keyboard, and as a result we often see full desktop sites delivered to tablet screens on the basis that they are technically able to handle that format of site. But this approach ignores some pretty basic characteristics of the tablet browsing experience.
For a start, when held portrait, the shape of the screen is quite different: there is the potential to create a layout that users will approach more like a page from a magazine or newspaper, rather than the scrolling letterbox view that our widescreen laptops and desktops afford us. A design can be created that allows users to take in more of the page with a single glance, and this in turn can be crucial to keeping users interested.
Secondly, on a tablet the user actually touches the design, so why not make the design more ‘tactile’? A sense of the response of the interface to the user’s touch can profoundly alter the perception of the usability and quality of a site.
2 Fingers are less accurate than a mouse pointer
It’s an obvious point, but one worth making. So many of the sites that Joe and I tested were unusable without zooming, because the clickable elements on the screen were simply too difficult to use with our fists of ham and fingers of butter. Tiny click areas stacked tightly side-by-side make for a very frustrating touch-screen experience.
3 Some things feel natural on a tablet, some less so…
Swiping and scrolling both feel extremely natural on a tablet, even for the relatively inexperienced user. Not fumbling to position a mouse pointer over a scroll arrow, or getting RSI from endlessly spinning a mouse wheel, make these interactions feel much more natural on a tablet. Conversely typing, selecting tiny form controls, and hover effects interpreted into clicks all feel awkward. Users tend to hold a tablet with one hand and browse with the other, so interactions that suddenly seem to need two hands tend to interrupt the flow of the experience. Delivering a tablet-specific site design and layout offers the opportunity to change these aspects of a site’s interface.
4 You can address the limitations of tablets
There’s no getting away from it: the screens are smaller (even if the resolutions are becoming better with each new generation), and the technical capabilities reduced (for the moment at least) in comparison to desktops and laptops. And then there are the obvious software limitations, such as the inability to run Flash on an iPad. A site aimed specifically at tablets can address these issues.
5 There is an expectation of good design
Apple currently takes around a 40% share of the tablet market with the iPad and iPad Mini. These are products that exist within a cult of good and thoughtful design. Whatever your feelings on overuse of skeuomorphisms vs. flat design, there is no getting away from the fact that both the devices and the software set a quality standard for design that even the most design-blind consumer can appreciate. As a result, the expectations of a great user experience are high – it’s a shock when one minute you’re moving from app to app, immersed in a world of great interface design, only to suddenly encounter a desktop site that is frustratingly fiddly to use in portrait form. It’s even more of a shock when you realise that Apple’s own site is one of these.
6 Tablet use happens in a different context
Tablet use feels far more casual, and as a result users are often sat on the sofa rather than at a desk or table, and are often multi-tasking. In a survey released earlier this year, the BBC found that 83% of tablet users said that they used their tablet while watching television at the same time. This type of use clearly has huge implications for everyone, but perhaps most significance for those with goods to sell. Making a catalogue of products easy to browse for a semi-distracted user is clearly a challenge in itself, but one worth solving. It seems likely that a relaxed user, only paying partial attention to the act of shopping, may be less likely to agonise over the price of goods, and more likely to make an impulse purchase. Essentially, a tablet-specific site offers the chance to ensure that key user-journeys feel natural, and part of the overall tablet experience.
7 If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake…
When it comes down to it, visiting an organisation’s website and being greeted by an interface tailored perfectly towards your browsing medium creates a great first impression. It shows forethought. We discovered as much ourselves, when we visited the H&M site on an iPad and an interface appeared that had clearly been designed with a portrait iPad screen in mind. Everything we wanted to do was obvious and easy, which was in stark contrast to the many desktop sites we’d struggled with.
Is there any reason not to design for tablet?
Time and cost. That really is it. Desktop /laptop is still the majority platform for web access, but that is almost certainly set to change. Designing and building a separate presentation layer for tablet devices will clearly add a certain amount of cost to any website project, though often less than you might think. And there is always the option of a responsive or adaptive site, a solution which addresses many of the issues above but effectively delivers the same website to all users. In the course of our research the only retailer who had taken this approach was Currys, and we felt that the end result was extremely impressive. In the public sector you need look no further than the award-winning Gov.uk site for an example of a clear, usable and beautiful website that resizes across devices.
The summary: after testing 60 different websites across a whole range of devices, our opinion was, without question, that where tablets are concerned, a desktop site is a poor second-best indeed.
The summary of the summary: design for tablets. Please.